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Snake oil in your tyres

11 March 2008

What happens when some bright-spark in marketing thinks he's come up with another great way to separate unsuspecting customers from their hard earned cash?

Well most reputable companies would check out the idea, weigh up the proposed product or service based on its merits and then decide for or against introducing it to the market.

But that doesn't seem to be what Firestone have done with their latest offering: nitrogen fills for your tyres.

In a brochure delivered to households around the country, the company claims that replacing the air in your tyres with nitrogen will provide many benefits, including "increased fuel economy".

Now, in these days of record fuel prices, who wouldn't want to save a few bucks at the pump simply by using some hi-tech gas in your tyres?

But wait, there's more...

Not only with the nitrogen fill lower your weekly fuel costs but it will also deliver these benefits:

  • stable tyre pressure
  • improved road grip
  • safer all-weather performance
  • no internal oxidisation [sic] through the elimination of moisture
  • increased tyre life
Wow, how amazing is this wonder-gas called nitrogen?

But hey, don't take my word for it, it's all on the Firestone website and, for just $20, you too could be enjoying these fabulous benefits.

Or could you?

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When you consider that regular good old air is nearly 80% nitrogen, I have to say that I was a little skeptical about these claimed benefits and balk at the prospect of paying $20 just to displace a little oxygen from my wheels.

So I turned to the internet to do some research.

According to The Straight Dope, there may be some theoretical benefits but most motorists are unlikely to see any of them. sumarises its report by saying "Save your money, and keep your tires properly inflated with air". says "filling your tires with nitrogen instead of regular air doesn’t offer a substantial advantage for a street-driven car".

And there's a whole lot of other expert opinion which suggests that although the claims being made for nitrogen may have some substance in theory, the reality is that the benefits are seldom seen to any real degree in practice.

So where does that leave Firestone?

Well I rang Firestone's 0800 number and asked to speak with someone who was an expert on the nitrogen fill product.

The guy I spoke to rejected the research I'd found on the Net and said that it did work.

How did he know?

Well he had nitrogen in his own tyres and immediately felt the difference.

But what about all that expert opinion and research on the Net?

No, it was wrong apparently.

I tried to get a number for someone further up the management chain at Firestone but apparently they don't give those numbers out to mere mortals like myself who might doubt the veracity of the claims being made.

So has Firestone breached NZ's rather stringent laws in respect to making claims that can't be substantiated?

Well it's a bit tricky I suspect.

Since all the claims made for nitrogen have some substance in theory, it can't be said that they're not true. However, I think the key issue is whether customers will actually see these claimed benefits in practice -- which I strongly doubt.

Here are some thoughts of my own:

One of the big claims being made is that nitrogen doesn't bleed from your tyres as quickly as air -- but one would assume therefore that it's really the oxygen component of air that leaks out. If that's the case, once you've topped your tyres up a couple of times, they'll contain significantly more nitrogen (as a ratio) than regular air anyway.

The claim that a nitrogen fill eliminates moisture. Guess what? A *decent* compressed air system will also include moisture traps to remove the water from the air anyway. Car painters who use compressed air have these moisture traps fitted because the water would otherwise ruin the painting process. Why do our tyre dealers not do the same?

What about that oxidation produced by the oxygen in an air-filled tyre? Well if you've stood around and watched when your tyres are changed, you'll have noticed that the inside of your tyre looks much blacker and "newer" than the outside. Oxidation of the rubber inside a tyre is a big non-event anyway.

Virtually all the benefits attributed to nitrogen (at $5 per tyre per fill) can also be achieved by simply maintaining your tyre pressures properly. Unless you do a lot of driving, a monthly or bi-monthly check will achieve everything that $20 per vehicle nitrogen fill offers too.

No doubt Firestone will be recommending its nitrogen fills to little old ladies who drive Morris Minors and take the word of the "nice man at the garage" that it will save them money and make them safer on the roads -- shame on you Firestone!

Likewise I'm sure that hundreds or thousands of Boy Racers will rush out and get nitrogen fills so they can brag to their mates how much better their car handles now.

But this has to be very close to a scam.

And, if it's an amazing product that improves fuel-economy you're after, I could sell you some great car polish. It will reduce your fuel consumption and increase your top speed - the science proves it. However, just like the nitrogen fill, the difference is so small for the average driver that you'd never notice the difference.

Question: Nitrogen, polish, snake oil. Spot the odd one out.

Answer: there isn't an odd one out.

Have you used nitrogen in your tyres?

Did you notice the difference?

Is Firestone pushing the limits of acceptable claims here?

Have your say on this...

PERMALINK to this column

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